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The G.O.A.T.

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The G.O.A.T. (AP file photo/ John Rooney)

It has been several days since the man known as 'The Greatest of All Time' shuffled off this mortal coil, when his broken body finally gave out in an Arizona hospital. As we've seen in the worldwide reaction, that physical end did nothing to kill the spirit of the larger-than-life phenomenon that was Muhammad Ali.

That a skinny kid from Louisville could end up as perhaps the most recognized and beloved man on the planet is the stuff of fairy tales - and that seems appropriate for a character who often seemed so unique that he had to be invented by someone else - but that's what makes the Ali story so truly remarkable. He was the opposite of today's pre-fab, homogenized, camera-ready celebrity athlete and his timing was perfect.

He was certainly a unique character in his chosen field, spinning rhymes with the same flair and grace he used dancing around opponents with the Ali Shuffle, but it was his actions as a man, not an athlete, that made him an icon.

From his refusal to be inducted into the military to his conversion to the Nation of Islam, he did what he believed was right rather than what was most marketable, and that's perhaps the biggest difference between Ali and those who followed in his wake. Whether intentional or not, he came to represent millions of African-Americans in the throes of the Civil Rights movement and spoke for many of all races with his opposition to the war in Vietnam - nearly a year before CBS newsman Walter Cronkite suggested that the honorable thing to do was bring our boys home.

Make no mistake, Ali was not a saint. He could hurt with his words as much as his punches and his verbal attacks on opponents (most notably Joe Frazier) did not cast him in a positive light. Nor was he a model of marital fidelity, at least through his first three attempts before meeting his match in his widow, Lonnie. Not everyone was a fan; there are those to this day that can never forgive him for some of his actions in the 1960s and 70s. He was, like most of us, a flawed man, who tried his best to keep getting better and seemed to learn from past transgressions.

I never met Muhammad Ali, but friends who did all came away with the same feeling, the sense that they had touched the hand of someone not of this plane of existence. I had the opportunity a few years ago to sit in a hotel bar with a handful of sportswriters and sportscasters, listening to the legendary Jerry Izenberg tell stories from his five-decade friendship with the fighter and watched as that roomful of grizzled veterans became starry-eyed kids hearing tales of a mythical hero.

While it was his athletic skills that first brought him fame, it may have been his body's ultimate betrayal that elevated him to the status of beloved icon. Whether it was his incredibly moving appearance with the Olympic torch at the 1996 games in Atlanta or one of his final interviews before the ability to communicate verbally was lost, one could not help but be touched by his courage, his acceptance of what life had dealt him, his unfailing sense of humor and wonder and his grace.

Charisma has become an overused word but no one owned that trait like Ali, whose connection to people crossed all boundaries of language, race, age and socio-economic status. Ali once said he'd like to be remembered 'as a man who never looked down on those who looked up to him,' and he lived that way until the end.

In a world that values style over substance, in a place where celebrities become famous for being famous, in a time when people build their often-distorted public image through social media, Muhammad Ali was an original. He said what he believed, fought for those beliefs and remained true to himself all without ever forgetting the people who also believed in him.

That's a pretty good job description for the title of 'Greatest of All Time.'

(Rich Kimball is the host of the 'Downtown with Rich Kimball' radio show, which airs from 3-6 p.m. Monday through Friday on The Pulse AM 620.)


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